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How Jac Jemc Became a Writer

November 11, 2012 — 3 Comments

I love to read, and so I want to write things that I would like to read. It’s the only thing more rewarding than reading for me.

Jac Jemc lives in Chicago where she makes monsters and writes fiction and poetry. Her first novel, My Only Wife, was published by Dzanc Books in April 2012 and a chapbook of stories, This Stranger She’d Invited In, sold out at Greying Ghost Press in March 2011 .  Jac’s writing has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, finished 2nd place in the Marginalia College Contest and placed as a finalist for the Rose Metal Press Chapbook Contest and Sentence Firewheel Chapbook Contest.  Her story “Women in Wells” was featured in the 2010 Best of the Web. Jac received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has completed residencies at Ragdale and the Vermont Studio Center. She is poetry editor at decomP and member of the editorial team at Tarpaulin Sky. She has served as a guest editor of Little White Poetry Journal  and and Hobart Web, and worked as a reader at Our Stories and The Means. In 2012 she was the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Professional Development Grant.

Visit her web site: http://jacjemc.com

Read more by and about Jac:

Novel: My Only Wife

Novel excerpt: My Wife, the Weight at Melusine

Story: The Grifted at Collagist

Story: Prowlers at Necessary Fiction

How Jac Jemc Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Jac for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

When I was in the third grade, I told my teacher my dream was to write a 100-page book. Then I forgot about that for a while, and tried some other things: music and acting, but I continued being a big reader. When I was in college I started writing again more seriously, and I realized how important it was to me, and that I could accomplish what I wanted to express in a way I hadn’t been able to achieve before. The more I read, the more ways of telling a story there seemed to be, and that made writing more and more attractive to me. I was finishing out a degree in theater, but I discovered that I really preferred working alone.  I think I might not be a terrific collaborator because I tend to want to follow through my own idea from beginning to end, and theater had a few too many variables for me. I think the short answer though, is that I love to read, and so I want to write things that I would like to read. It’s the only thing more rewarding than reading for me.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

So all of the things I just said go into the actual steps to ‘becoming a writer.’ But I started a double major in English Creative Writing and worked with some terrifically supportive professors in undergrad. I made a couple independent studies in novel writing and playwriting (which I realized was not for me) that seemed super important to my development. The novel writing independent study was with a poetry teacher, so I was already on the road to hybrids. When I started looking at grad schools, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago seemed ideal because they’re one of the only schools that doesn’t make you choose a concentration. You can take a poetry class and it might be full of painters who want to talk language and you can take a fiction class that’s full of poets, and the world just opens up. Luckily (haha) it was the only school that I was accepted to, so I wasn’t given the chance to mess up that decision. At SAIC, students have the option to meet weekly with advisors, which I found to be the most valuable part of that program.  I started by setting goals for how many hours a week I want to write. I try to stick to a schedule – if not a regular time every day to write, a certain number of hours a week. Of course, life intervenes and messes with the schedule often, but setting that expectation and working for it is what makes me feel like I can call myself a writer. As soon as I stop making that time a priority is when I’m in jeopardy of “writer” not being a word that applies to me.

3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

Those advisors in grad school were huge helps. They taught me how to ask the right questions, and the right question is usually, “Is this what I want it to be? How do I make it what I want it to be?”  Advisors that were invaluable to me were Beth Nugent, Janet Desaulniers, Carol Anshaw, Ellen Rothenberg, Bin Ramke. I could go on; the whole community was just life-changing. My peers are my biggest motivator now. I’m surrounded by people that write AMAZING work that is exactly what I want to read. I see how hard they work and how true they are to themselves, and I makes me want to work harder.

by Edward Gorey

4.  Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

Edward Gorey comes to mind. What an entirely singular vision. He made what he wanted to make even though there was no category for it, and he lived his life in a way that seemed just wholly true to himself, too.  And he LOVED to work! That is so exciting to me.

Eileen Myles, too. Her novel, Inferno is about her life, and she is such an inspiration. She was so fearlessly herself. Patti Smith, too. Lynda Barry. Andy Warhol. All of these people have a way of weaving their work so seamlessly into their lives. That sounds like the perfect world to me, to erase that divide between my creative life and the work it takes to live and keep going.

Book trailer for Eileen Myles, Inferno:

5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

I’d say: Read. Write exactly what you want to write, even if it seems like a piece of crap while writing it. Learn how to listen to criticism in a way that allows the writing to become better, but learn how to recognize the suggestions you do and don’t want to follow through with. See lots of art and watch movies and be with people and live your whole life. It’s easy to feel like you need to accomplish everything immediately, but you need to live, too.  There is time. So much time. You can be Woody Allen and put out a movie every year, whether it’s good or bad, or you can be Terrence Malick, making a film a decade: whatever works for you. Read and write.

From the very beginning my T-square and triangle were an easy media of expression for my geometrical sense of things.

Frank Lloyd Wright

It’s time for the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge! This week: GEOMETRY.

So of course I have to talk about Frank Lloyd Wright. (My Fallingwater novella LILIANE’S BALCONY comes out next fall!)

And of course I’m not going to talk about geometry or photography, I’m just going to tell a story.

A few weeks ago I drove into Chicago to visit the Robie House for the first time. My dad was in town from Colorado, and Chicago is way closer to Indiana than Colorado, so I took the opportunity to drive to the city and have dinner with him. (I was Richly Rewarded with six ounces of filet mignon at Gibson’s Steakhouse. Medium rare. Cooked in an 1800 degree oven. Perfection.)

Before Dinner with Dad, I took an afternoon tour of the Robie House, which is on the campus of the University of Chicago. I was guided perfectly by Siri, but already, even as I drove, I was making comparisons to Fallingwater.

To get to Fallingwater, you drive on the PA Turnpike and get off at an exit for a town you’ve never heard of (different exits depending on which way you’re coming), and then you drive rolling country miles:

through towns like Normalville:

Sometimes you stumble upon some geometry:

Other times you just see rainbows:

What can I say, it’s a very soothing experience just to DRIVE to Fallingwater. It’s much less soothing to drive to the Robie House:

And even when I arrived at the house, there was nowhere to park. It’s on the corner of a long narrow street of elegant old-Chicago homes, and for blocks and blocks the cars are parked bumper to bumper to bumper to bumper. As I passed the Robie House on my left, a guy was directing traffic through the intersection, and I said, “Where do I park for the Robie House?” And he didn’t even stop waving his hand or glance at me as he called back, “59th Street.” Which was like five long blocks back to the main road.

So I turn around and head back, driving slowly in hopes of spying an open parking spot, and the car behind me stays within an inch of my back hatch, and the driver is already gesticulating, and I’m thinking, Dude, Indiana license plate! Figure it out! And then I get behind a car that is waiting for another car to pull out so it can take the parking spot, and the street is too narrow for me to go around, so I wait patiently while Dude behind me starts honking and swerving like HE’s going to go around me, and then I finally make it around the other car and the Dude behind me yells out his window: Fucking bitch! At me! So of course I shove my arm out my window and give him the finger. And then I praaaay that he doesn’t pull out a gun and shoot me before I can get to the Robie House.

So already I’m wishing I were in rural Pennsylvania instead of downtown Chicago. But the walk to the Robie House is quite charming after all.

I arrived just in time for the 3:00 tour. My Robie House guide was super thorough and knowledgeable and did a great job of pointing out all the unique architectural (geometrical!) details of the house. First she took us across the street for an outside view of the house. Note the cars.

And already I’m realizing another difference between the Robie House and Fallingwater: there’s only one tour at a time through the Robie House. Maybe six tours per day, 12 visitors per tour. At Fallingwater, the tours start every 6 minutes, and when I was there the following weekend, they were sold out, with 1200 visitors each day of the weekend.

Back at the Robie House the guide had to battle with the sounds of jackhammers, sirens, and even a helicopter as she tried to talk. Then she walked us around the house and inside through the lower-level foyer.

Where I got a bit distracted by the geometry of a tree:

And the geometry of a window looking through the former children’s playroom:

That empty playroom signals what I would determine is the most significant difference between the Robie House and Fallingwater: the Robie House is empty.

Fallingwater is fully furnished with the original items owned by the Kaufmann family. The bookshelves are positively loaded with books from around the world and across the centuries. When I go through the house I look at book spines as much as at this or that cantilever.

The Robie House, I have to say it again, is empty. It turns out that the Robie Family that commissioned the house in 1908 only lived there for a little over a year before having to sell it to pay off inherited debts. Then two other families owned over the next 20 years. And then it was purchased, along with many other houses on the nearby blocks, by the University of Chicago, and it was used over the years for apartments and meeting places. For a while it was the office of the Alumni Association!

In 1957, there was serious talk of demolishing it (to make room for a student dormitory), and 90-year-old Wright showed up to plead its case. Within a decade it made it onto the appropriate protected historical landmarks list. And thank goodness it did:

Just saw this in the New York Times. I supposed they’d also destroy a Picasso painting if it was blocking a great view. (No, that reason actually has an aesthetic basis. They’d destroy a Picasso if it was blocking a great view that they could charge a lot of money to look through.)

Wright Masterwork Is Seen in a New Light: A Fight for Its Life

By Published: October 2, 2012

It’s hard to say which is more startling. That a developer in Phoenix could threaten — by Thursday, no less — to knock down a 1952 house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Or that the house has until now slipped under the radar, escaping the attention of most architectural historians, even though it is one of Wright’s great works, a spiral home for his son David.

Read the rest here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/03/arts/design/frank-lloyd-wright-house-in-phoenix-faces-bulldozers.html?smid=pl-share

Screenshot taken from NYT. Click image for link to slideshow.

What, you may ask, does this have to do with writing? And why do I care about this? Becausebecause, because . . .

Letterpress!

June 6, 2012 — 1 Comment

Center for Book Arts work room.

Today I was in NYC for the first of a 5-day Letterpress Printing & Publishing Seminar for Emerging Writers at the Center for Book Arts. Here’s a sampling of what we did. We’re all newbies to letterpress.

Vandercook Press

We all set our names in different type faces and prepared for printing.

Making a print.

The print!

As writers, we live double lives: lived once in the world of others, and again, in the quiet of our own minds. It takes a certain amount of will and courage to leave with regularity the circle of humanity in order to enact a kind of theft, which is one aspect of what the writing life seems to be.

Anne Germanacos is the author of the short story collection In the Time of Girls (BOA Editions). Born in San Francisco, she has lived in Greece for over thirty years. Together with her husband, Nick Germanacos, she ran the Ithaka Cultural Studies Program on the islands of Kalymnos and Crete, and taught writing, literature, and Modern Greek. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her work has appeared in over eighty literary reviews and anthologies, including Dzanc’s Best of the Web 2009. She and her husband have four children and five grandchildren. They live on Crete and in San Francisco.

Web page: http://www.annegermanacos.com/

Update June 13-14, 2012: Celebrating Freshly Pressed with a book giveaway! Click here for a chance to win a signed copy of Anne’s book.

Read more by and about Anne:

Book: In the Time of the Girls
Short Story: “Killing the Husband”
Interview: A Writer’s Dictionary
Short Story: “Whore of Babel”
Book Review at Blackbird
Flashes: “Drops (rain, lemon, tear) Cough!

How Anne Germanacos Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Donna Miscolta for recommending Anne, and thanks to Anne for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

Writing brought the world into a different focus while conferring something that felt like a secret, additional self.

The desire began with this revelation of clarity, difference, separateness and power. (I’m sure my receptivity to the revelation was encouraged by need.)

Writing offered another body (in words) that could hold the many shifting parts, adding new ones when they occurred. It allowed me to go my own way, holding out the possibility even in situations that required me to go against my own grain.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

I became a writer by writing every day, creating, rewriting, sometimes destroying in order to make space for something new.

As writers, we live double lives: lived once in the world of others, and again, in the quiet of our own minds. It takes a certain amount of will and courage to leave with regularity the circle of humanity in order to enact a kind of theft, which is one aspect of what the writing life seems to be.

If we steal in the right way—from ourselves and the world—we may fashion (and be rewarded with) a gift. I love the ecology of writing, the way it turns nothing into something, generally without too much damage to the environment.

Painting by Belinda Bryce

My writing is in constant (often unconscious) conversation with the books I read. Writing for many years without an audience, reading gave me a sense of the human community we’re all a part of, and written companions. It made me want to write something worthy of that conversation.

More than anything, though, it’s likely I became a writer by a certain act of daring: I left home at seventeen to live in another country, married and had children young, taught, and wrote. I’m sure it was the desire to be a writer—to make a life that would nourish and replenish me as a writer—that allowed me to make such a bold decision. Being in love didn’t hurt, either.

3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

When I was 12, a teacher encouraged me to write daily, and because I was a little in love with him, I did. The next teacher who responded to my writing returned my love, and so we’ve been married for many years. Having someone by my side who never faltered in supporting my desire to write helped tremendously to create, if not smooth, the path. (There is no smooth path to becoming a writer.)

Painting by Belinda Bryce

My children required me to be strong enough to be both a mother and a writer. In order to teach, I had to read carefully and find ways of conveying a passion for language to young people who were sometimes more interested in other endeavors. Sometimes, though, the intensity of their focus made class worthy of a story!

Graduate school gave me fine teachers, a sympathetic audience and wonderful, supportive writing friends. This community was both preparation for and launch toward the book that would garner a small audience.

4.  Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

Rather than looking to a particular writer or artist’s biography, I take inspiration from any life along the way and hold my life against any number of lives, measuring, to know how far I have to go, as a person first, always, because without the primacy of the life—both lived and imagined—there’s no story.

I recently read a biography of the artist Joan Mitchell and was fascinated by the descriptions of the way she saw—she had an eidetic memory and synesthesia, to boot! It sometimes helps me to understand the way I move through space and time, trying to make something of it, by stepping away from words toward another medium, and one I don’t work in.

I recently read a biography of the artist Joan Mitchell and was fascinated by the descriptions of the way she saw—she had an eidetic memory and synesthesia, to boot!

I admire the work of Homer, Padgett Powell, WG Sebald, Geoff Dyer, Isaac Babel. Grace Paley, Adam Phillips, Anne Carson. David Markson, David Malouf. Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson. I could go on.

The work they produced against their days helps sustain me—as a human being and a writer. Also, some of these writers have created works that seem to lend validity to certain less conventional aspects of my own writing.

I know that doesn’t exactly answer the question. I guess I’m resistant!

5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Minimize doubt. Find a way—a method, a trick, a psychological tic to dissolve doubt’s potency. You will most likely always be working alongside it, so best to have some useful way of repelling it. I write against it, a little like diving into a cold pool of water—scary but invigorating. Generally, it does the trick. But if that doesn’t work, get up and do something else. Forget about it for a while.

Be gentle with yourself—you will find so many reasons not to be. But it’s most likely your kindness toward yourself (I’m not saying self-indulgence) that will help you alongside the rigors of constant, daily writing.

I can’t speak to a practice that is anything less than daily. It’s the only one I know, so it’s the one I peddle.

By writing daily, you make it your life.

And one more thing: publication is the icing on the cake. The act of writing itself gives you a way to be in the world and is its own reward. Publication just makes it okay, finally, to actually mention that you’re a writer.

At AWP I got to meet with Kathleen and Abby of Rose Metal Press, who publish amazing, beautiful, and unique hybrid-genre books like these:

They also say super-smart things about the importance of indie-publishing, like this short essay, “On Being Indie,” at The Next Best Book Blog:

Compared to trade publishers, we have more creative freedom because we are independent and a nonprofit and can publish and encourage the kind of writing that we see as ground-breaking and innovative rather than focusing heavily on the marketability and projected sales numbers of any given project. We obviously want our books to sell, but the quality of the work takes precedence in our process of choosing what we’ll publish.

So you can imagine how thrilled I am that they are publishing my book, Liliane’s Balcony, in fall 2013. They wrote up a juicy description of the book to preview their upcoming publications:

Liliane’s Balcony is a novella-in-flash that takes place at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Built for Pittsburgh merchants E.J. and Liliane Kaufmann in 1935, the house is as much a character as it is a setting. One September night in 1952, Liliane Kaufmann—tired of her husband’s infidelities with a woman named Stoops—overdoses on pain pills in her bedroom. From there, Liliane’s Balcony alternates Mrs. Kaufmann’s mostly true story with the fictional narratives of four modern-day tourists who arrive at the historic home in the midst of their own personal crises, all of which culminate on Mrs. Kaufmann’s over-sized, cantilevered balcony. With its ghosts, motorcycles, portraits, Vikings, and failed relationships, Liliane’s Balcony is as dizzying and intricately beautiful as the structure in which it is set.

Here’s a link to the opening chapter published at Talking Writing:http://talkingwriting.com/?p=640

Frank Lloyd Wright was on my mind because of the book and because I was in Chicago, where he’s kind of hard to avoid. On Sunday, after I had my final coffee-with-a-friend and before I drove back to South Bend, I visited FLW’s home and studio in Oak Park. Here are a few of the like 50 pictures I took. They’re kind of crappy because I used my iPhone and was often rushing to take pics before other tourists got in my frame, and they’re in reverse order so just pretend you’re walking backward through the tour.

Wright's Oak Park house and studio, 1889-1909.

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Love the ceiling lights throughout the house.

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Secretary's desk in the studio office.

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Waiting room to the studio. And also a talking room where they could lay out plans on the table and shut the studio door and discuss the PLANS.

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Side of studio.

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Model of the Robie House.

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Center of studio with hint of the vaulted ceiling. Amazing.

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Yep. Apparently the second floor was originally supported by the chains, but current building codes won't allow it.

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First view of studio. Robie model on left. The desks straight ahead are the ones in earlier photo. Light shining down from upper level windows.

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The children's play room! (There were 6 kids.) Windows on both sides. Grand piano wedged into the wall on the left side of image.

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More awesome ceiling lights. These are in the dining room, which was pretty small and typical of the time.


Living room. Bay window seating.

For Wright, the hearth is always the center of the house and family.

Maybe you’ve noticed: I’ve been posting interviews, but I haven’t been blogging so much. Where am I going? AWP in Chicago! Where have I been? Busy. In a good way: Taking an online mixed media art class. Teaching my classes. Applying for grants. Writing new stories.

I’ve been here at New Purlieu Review, where my flash piece “Three Women” was published in January. There’s a Professor Plum and a Lady Bret. Here’s a snippet:

In Plum’s office Lady Bret wanted to slide across the floor to the shelves of books and inch her way into their pages, like an actual bookworm, eating away the words and pages until she created a space she could fit her whole body in. Plum said you need to develop this section and read so-and-so’s article on that section if you want to—. But Lady Bret didn’t want to. She wanted and wanted.

The art class was part of my 2012 New Year’s LIVE LOVELY campaign. Here’s a portrait I made (inspired by Alfred Henry Maurer):

I also made air-dry pottery, drawings of moths, a rhinoceros, a peacock, lots of portraits, collages, etc.

Now it’s time to head to AWPthe annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs – in Chicago.

My book For Sale By Owner will be at the Kore Press/Arcadia booth 822.

And Rose Metal Press (Table N4) will have a bit (a very little bit) of promotional material about my forthcoming book, Liliane’s Balcony, set at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house.

I’ll be on this panel on Saturday:

Home Sweet Home: Short Story Collections and Small Presses
Caitlin Horrocks, Amina Gautier, Shannon Cain, Adam Schuitema, Kelcey Parker

(4:30-5:45 Sat. 3/3 Lake Erie, Hilton Chicago, 8th Floor)

With trade publishers less willing to take a risk on story collections and agents and editors advising writers to just finish a novel, where can the story writer turn? Five debut authors discuss their experiences with the small, independent, and university presses that are increasingly the most welcoming homes for story collections. They’ll discuss how they found their publishers, what small publishers can (and can’t) offer story authors, and how these presses are helping collections thrive.

And I’ll be spending quite a bit of time at the 42 Miles Press table – M 12.

Carrie Oeding – who was featured in my How to Become a Writer Interview series – will be there signing her book Our List of Solutions on Friday, 3/2 from 1-3 p.m.

If you’ll be at the conference, stop by one of these tables, say hello!

Happy New Year! I just returned today from an awesome family holiday in Colorado, filled with skating, hiking, skiing, hugging, crying, laughing, eating, and drinking. Here’s a view from the gondola up the mountain at Keystone (which was way out of my league skiing-wise):

It’s resolution time, but I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions. Here’s what I said about them in a post a year ago:

A resolution is something we should do, don’t do, resolve to do in the future, do a few times, and then fail to continue doing. Which makes us feel bad.

I respond much better to commands. So I’ve started choosing one meaningful command that repeats in my mind as if yelled by a drill sergeant at top volume, or, better, as if sung by an awesome singer who repeats it as a refrain I can’t escape.

Last year – 2011 – my command was: Put Yourself Out There  (See full post here.)

And I did! Against my own shy nature, I gave lots of readings for my book, developed my blog, made a new web site, won awards, applied for a competitive Fulbright post in Belfast (survived preliminary round!), submitted a tenure dossier, gave more readings, and just generally Put Myself Out There.

Before that, in summer 2010, my first blogging summer, my command was: Finish What You Started

I’d started all these manuscripts that I hadn’t finished, and this command, repeated over and over, helped me get focused and finish lots of projects.

Which brings us to 2012. My theme for this year is: Live Lovely

This basically means I’m tired of putting myself out there and I want to turn my focus toward living well, slowing down, making art – literary, visual, decorative, culinary – and toward my loved ones.

It’s a weird phrase – Live Lovely – so I’ve been trying it out for a few weeks in my head. And it’s already working! For Christmas I made a few gifts, which combined art-making with loved ones. Here are some vellum votive candles I sent to my mother and grandparents, and I made some for dad and sister too:

[Update: I got the idea from this cool book: PHOTOCRAFT Cool Things to Do with the Pictures You Love]

A friend and fellow writer keeps a terrific blog – I Will Not Diet – where she posted lots of Non-Resolutions by contributors (like me!) HERE.

What did YOU accomplish this year? What’s your command/theme/non-resolution for 2012?

[A] mysterious poet visitor was sitting in an undergraduate workshop at the U of MN. Someone said he was a famous poet from China, and honestly I don’t remember what his name was. I wouldn’t have known who was famous then. Why was he there? He came up after class once and said, “You’re going to be a good poet one day.” It kind of shook me.

Carrie Oeding’s first book, Our List of Solutions, won the Lester M. Wolfson prize in 2010, selected by David Dodd Lee. The book was released in 2011 by 42 Miles Press, a new poetry series from Indiana University South Bend Press. Carrie’s work has appeared in such places as Colorado Review, Third Coast, Greensboro Review, Mid-American Review, Best New Poets 2005 and elsewhere. She is currently working on a second book of poems and a book of creative nonfiction essays. A native of Minnesota, Carrie has lived in Washington, Ohio, Texas and now resides in West  Virginia with her husband, poet Kent Shaw.

Visit Carrie’s website: http://www.carrieoeding.com/

Read more by and about Carrie:

Book: Our List of Solutions
“I Have Been In More Uncomfortable Situations Than This” at Diagram
Audio at The Poet’s Corner
“Work Harder” at Verse Daily

How Carrie Oeding Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (er, or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Carrie for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

I was really in my head as a kid. Books excited me, but they excite a lot of young people, so who knows. When I grew older, I knew I wanted to make art, and I was closest with language as an outlet. When I was a junior in high school, I started telling people I was going to major in creative writing at the University of Minnesota, and then I did.

I was born on a small Minnesota farm, a small working farm where my dad grows corn and soybeans and sometimes raised sheep. I never write poems about where I grew up. There’s no negative or traumatic reason for this. I have, however, one piece in Brevity: A Journal of Concise Creative Nonfiction that is about my relationship with growing up on a farm. I want to say “in isolation on a farm,” but I think of my husband laughing when I said we lived 5 miles from town, which was hardly isolation. But it might as well have been 50 miles, as I spent most of my life on the farm. And, anyway, the “town” was Luverne, MN–population: less than 5,000. My husband also likes to chuckle at the image of me stretched across my bed, literally waiting for something to happen, anything. People like to look back and find meaning after the fact about how they got here, some of this is true and some is storytelling. Storytelling is meaning-making, I understand, but I don’t always trust it. This distrust works well in essays as it creates a constant need for questioning and rethinking.

Louise Bourgeois Installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2007 Image © Nathan Strange/AP

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

In a pretty conventional way. B.A. in English with creative writing emphasis. Attending an MFA program immediately after at the age of 22. Ph.D. in creative writing right after that. But this doesn’t necessarily explain how I became a writer. I became a writer by writing. I remember almost all of my undergraduate creative writing teachers saying, “Just write, and things will happen,” and when I began to see it was true, I never doubted this. I still don’t. Even when I’m anxious about what’s next.

Was I too young to leave Minneapolis after undergrad and pursue an MFA at 22? Probably. But I was right to make the decision, and I immediately had a real writing life because if it. If I hadn’t left Minnesota to get an MFA at that time, I likely would be a very unhappy person today who doesn’t write. Maybe I wouldn’t, but I wouldn’t want to go back in time and find out.

I heard someone on NPR a number of years ago, a fiction writer, who said he taught himself how to write stories by retyping Grace Paley’s short stories. It was an “I had no idea what I was doing” confession, but I loved the idea of it. And Grace Paley should be retyped by all of us. I can’t remember who it was, but then I think he went on to somehow fall into some famous novelist’s lap who schooled him.

Joseph Cornell

 3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

This is another interesting question, because I again want to answer it in different ways. Some of the people who helped me in the beginning of my writing life were practically strangers whom I had brief encounters with. For instance, a mysterious poet visitor was sitting in an undergraduate workshop at the U of MN. Someone said he was a famous poet from China, and honestly I don’t remember what his name was. I wouldn’t have known who was famous then. Why was he there? He came up after class once and said, “You’re going to be a good poet one day.” It kind of shook me. It didn’t stay with me, though. I just remembered this recently.

Stevie Smith

The writers I read whom initially helped open up the idea of what writing could do—Stevie Smith, Amy Hempel, Mary Ruefle, Frank O’Hara, Barry Hannah, Larry Levis, Claire Bateman, Russell Edson, Lydia Davis. I feel incredibly unsatisfied stopping here, but I’m just making lists.

My editor, David Dodd Lee, for being such a smart reader of my first book (and of poems, period), seeing that it is doing something new, understanding its humor and seriousness, and publishing it. Publishing it in a gorgeous book that completely lives up to my in-print dreams!  Also, my husband, Kent Shaw, who is a poet, who has read more contemporary poetry than anyone I’ve met and sees the book in the same vein. His writing keeps me excited about poetry, which is funny because when we first started dating we didn’t read each other’s work. We are both very critical, and we secretly worried we wouldn’t like each other’s poems. Our writing was a huge surprise to each other. Then we got hitched.

Some who currently help me are the writers and artists who keep me excited about making things: Alice Notley, Eula Biss, Maggie Nelson, Mattea Harvey, Werner Herzog, Miranda July. I am absolutely on fire about artist Sarah Sze, but you should see the installations in person.

Something that has helped me from stopping writing after I completed my first book, is taking art classes during my two years in Houston. I saw a Martin Puryear show at the SFMOMA in 2009. I had finished my first book, and it was unpublished. I was alone and at god-awful MLA, and it was one of the best art experiences of my life. Something about walking closely around his sculptures made me feel like I was breathing for the first time in two years. I moved to Houston nine months later and took art classes at the Museum of Fine Art’s Glassell School. I remember the first night of just intro to drawing and how it felt electric to be sketching terribly in the humid Houston August. I think there were times I slept with my art supplies. It’s stupid, I hate these kinds of narratives, but I am going to own this one. Two years of classes weren’t enough, but having that kind of excitement about making anything recharged my writing.

4.  Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

Henry Darger

Joseph Cornell and Henry Darger were easy to get obsessed with. There is no line between their artistic and personal biographies. Going back to the writer who copied lines of Grace Paley, I like the idea of trying to figure things out on your own–having a hunch of what you want to do, and like Darger, finding ways on his own to get his collages “right” for him.

Also Ana Mendieta, I’m fascinated with, her performance pieces, during which uses her body in ways I’m usually very cynical about.

Louise Bourgeois is one of my favorite artists. Her wit, side view, darkness, and play are right up my alley. And she just works in so many mediums. Never stopped exploring.

I’d like to be around Marianne Moore. Have her as a neighbor, but I don’t want to read her biography.

5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
Write and read, and things will happen.

If you’re a poet, consider making something in addition to poetry. You need to be making something all of the time, whatever it is. Poems, collages, pancakes.

Be humble. Don’t romanticize being humble. Don’t be so easily impressed.

So my romantic theory is this: The religious doctrine I was learning (in many ways irreconcilable with my gender), the mass’ obvious theatricality, and transubstantiation’s inherent metaphor, all helped to make me the poet I am—these things and An American in Paris, of course.

Lesley Jenike is currently an assistant professor of English at the Columbus College of Art and Design where she teaches courses in poetry writing, screenwriting, American literature, and film studies. She received her MFA in poetry from The Ohio State University in 2003 and a Ph.D. in twentieth century American poetry and drama from the University of Cincinnati in 2008. Her first book of poems is Ghost of Fashion (CW Books, 2009) and her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, The Southern Review, Sou’wester, Blackbird, Verse, Rattle, The Birmingham Poetry Review, and other journals. She has received an Academy of American Poets Prize, and fellowships and scholarships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her second book of poems has been a finalist twice for the Anthony Hecht Prize and excerpts will be published soon in an anthology by Waywiser Press.

Visit Lesley’s online home base and blog: https://ccad.digication.com/ljenike/Welcome/published

Read more by and about Lesley:

Book: Ghost of Fashion
“The Stag at Eve” at The Poetry Foundation
Two poems at Blackbird
“On Formalist Poetry” at 32 Poems
“Three’s Brainchild Is” at Verse Daily

How Lesley Jenike Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Lesley for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

When I was a little girl I enjoyed reading stories and having stories read to me. I honestly think it was as simple as that. I was a verbal kid from the start, and I just really liked the plasticity of words. I’m also lucky enough to have a mother who knows a bunch of old songs and who loved to read to me before bedtime, who sang a lot around the house, and who has a wonderful vocabulary. But my childhood wasn’t all Nabokov, Proust and lollipops at a preternaturally early age. I spent a lot of time alone watching TV, lots of older movies—big 1950’s and early ‘60’s Technicolor musical extravaganzas. Those were my foundational “texts.”

Of course once I hit middle school and life was suddenly complicated—for a variety of reasons—I turned to language again as a way of controlling my own story when I felt so absolutely out of control. This was also the time I started Catholic school. I was at most vulnerable and malleable in those years, spending more rainy afternoons with the Gospels than I ever imagined I would. I loved to sing during mass too, and I found myself looking forward to those songs that happened to have strange and evocative lyrics about blood and ghosts, etc. So my romantic theory is this: The religious doctrine I was learning (in many ways irreconcilable with my gender), the mass’ obvious theatricality, and transubstantiation’s inherent metaphor, all helped to make me the poet I am—these things and An American in Paris, of course. At least this is the story I’m telling myself these days.

At any rate, I must have first encountered Gerard Manley Hopkins during my Catholic school years. Oh Hopkins! He’s always been, for me, the quintessential definition of what poetry is: humanity’s melodious struggle with the Eternal. Or is that a working definition for the American musical? I think it was around then that I really started to write.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I began sharing my writing with other people once I was in high school—The School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine neighborhood. Even from the first, the place smacked of some kind of hurried professionalism. We were all training to be somebody. If you weren’t in commercials, in touring companies of The Sound of Music, or in Jodi Foster’s movie Little Man Tate, then you knew somebody who was. But despite all the premature jockeying for position, I had trouble differentiating between the arts. I wrote plays for my actor friends and I enjoyed being on stage myself. I drew a little bit and sang a lot. I think I preferred the words I was reciting or singing to the performance itself, but performing was a way to get attention and a way to further engage with language—a means to an end.

I was first in college at the Boston Conservatory of Music, thinking—oh I don’t know—that I would spend a few years singing and dancing, but that writing would be my real future. Writing as a future? At the time I had no real understanding of “academic poetry” or how poets made a living, or even if they made a living. I just knew that I wanted to write and study literature, and that I couldn’t do that at the Boston Conservatory. So after one too many makeup and movement classes, I transferred to Emerson where I started writing in earnest. I took critique seriously and I read a lot. I met some of my life-long writer friends there, and from there I went on to graduate school—simply because I wasn’t sure what else to do. I became a writer because I wasn’t really anything else.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

Andrew Hudgins

My first creative writing teacher, Nancy Bailey (now Nancy White), was an absolute godsend. She took the time to see me. In college, Bill Knott wrote me a letter for my graduate school applications. I wasn’t really sure whether he liked me (or my work) or not, but he just assumed I was going to graduate school. So I went. At Ohio State I was lucky enough to take classes from so many wonderful professors, but I’m most especially grateful to Andrew Hudgins. Either he saw my potential, thought I was moderately funny, or took pity on me, but in any case, he’s one of the finest teachers anyone could ever hope to have and an immense poet. When I can’t speak to him directly (and I still often ask him for help), I just go to the poems themselves. Jeredith Merrin taught me the value of the “scholar-poet” model (as did Randall Jarrell) and thanks to her, I take very seriously my responsibility as a writer to discuss other writers’ (dead or alive) work, to stay engaged intellectually, and to contribute as much as I can to the ongoing “conversation.”

My professors at the University of Cincinnati were, of course, tremendous. I’m grateful for all the time and energy Don Bogen dedicated to my dissertation, and I’m grateful to John Drury for helping me fall in love with poetry all over again. But the study of writing is really a matter of reading. Shakespeare helped me more than I’ll ever understand (though I imagine Harold Bloom has a theory). Robert Lowell, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Emily Dickinson, Jean Rhys, Henry James, John Ashbery, Virginia Woolf, Jean Genet, Jean Toomer, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Conner, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edward Albee, Wallace Stevens, Samuel Coleridge—all these people (and many, many more) help me. And not least of all, my peers, colleagues, and students, who are eternally writing the stuff that wows me.

Edna St. Vincent Millay in NYC

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

Most of the writers I love suffered some (if not innumerable) setbacks. I say this with the luxury of historical distance; I can look at the trajectory of their lives as if they were plays with succinct beginnings, middles, and ends. Of course, as they were living their lives, they no doubt experienced both hardship and happiness, as we all do. I wish I could cherry-pick certain moments. For example, I would love to be a bohemian Edna St. Vincent Millay in Greenwich Village, circa 1920. I’m sure Elizabeth Bishop had moments of pleasure in 1950’s Brazil. And out of curiosity, I’d like to make the pilgrimage to Rapallo with Robert Lowell—but we all know how that journey ended.

Cole Swensen

If I had to choose a living author whose life (from the outside) seems exceptionally beautiful, I’d choose Cole Swensen’s—a poet and scholar whom I admire tremendously. She spends part of the year teaching at Iowa, part of the year in Washington D.C., and part of the year in Paris. Her elegance, intelligence, worldliness, and the sheer drama of her poetic line, are a revelation. The Paris thing isn’t half bad either. I would someday like to live at least a year abroad.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Stay modest. Maintain a student’s state-of-mind as long as you can, preferably forever. Certainly form your opinions and tastes, your allegiances and preferences, but never stop learning. The literary tradition is rich and diverse and it’s your responsibility. It should haunt you. It should wake you up at night. It should follow you on your run and cheer you when you’re out at the bar. It should spot you at the gym and hold your hand in the dark of the movie theatre. The minute you stop seeing yourself as a neophyte, you’re dead.